Mumbai through a lens
Three young photographersRitesh Uttamchandani, Anurag Banerjee and Raj Lalwanitalk about their different approaches to capturing Mumbai
Ever since photography arrived in Mumbai in the early 1840s, the port city and its inhabitants have played the muse to generations of shutterbugs, from the Indo-European elite who made up the photographic societies of the 1850s to today’s iPhone-toting Instagrammers. Over the years, a visual lexicon of the island city has emerged, serving as an instantly recognizable shorthand for the clichés that have accreted around it—panoramas of Marine Drive at night, shots of the Gateway of India and Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, grainy black and white images of the city’s homeless. Much like the clichés they represent, these visual tropes might once have had the ring of authenticity, but are now as tired and stale as the #SpiritOfMumbai. Now a new generation of photographers is upending convention to find new ways of seeing and documenting the city.
“Most visual records of the city are too skewed towards south Mumbai and the parties of the rich and famous," says award-winning freelance photojournalist Ritesh Uttamchandani, who released his debut photography book, The Red Cat And Other Stories, on 22 May. Shot exclusively on his iPhone over the last four-and-a-half years, the self-published book shines a light on life in the less glamorous corners of Mumbai. True to that mission, much of the action here takes place in the suburbs and the city’s iconic landmarks are largely absent. “I wanted to reach a place where the images make you understand what it feels like to be here, because you don’t need me to show you what the Gateway of India looks like."
A photojournalist since 2004, Uttamchandani worked at The Indian Express, Hindustan Times and Open before going freelance in 2016. His experience as a journalist has been a major influence and this is reflected in the images in The Red Cat And Other Stories. But the book is not straight-up photojournalism, nor is Uttamchandani the detached observer documenting things from a distance. His photographs blur the line between documentary, wry social commentary and personal memoir, as if he’s taking the viewer on a stroll through the city, stopping every now and then to chat with the people he bumps into.
Uttamchandani displays a rare talent for finding the absurd and the poignant in the seemingly mundane. One of my favourite images in the book captures a girl in a jury-rigged hammock under a bridge, her hands splayed upwards in play, subtly subverting the second-hand pathos with which we are programmed to respond to images of the city’s poor. He credits this to an innate curiosity about people and their stories, something he picked up from the Sindhi folk tales his mother and sisters would tell him as a child. Among them was the fable of the red cat that features in the book’s title. “I think everybody’s story is interesting, you just need to slow down and listen," he says. “If you read the fable, it’s about empathy, love and a basic understanding of humanity. And that’s basically how I function."
“The process of me falling in love with the city happened around the same time that I fell in love with photography," says photographer Raj Lalwani. Growing up in a large, overly protective joint family in Juhu, Lalwani was fairly sheltered, rarely venturing out of the suburb. So when he joined the bachelor’s course in mass media at KC College in south Mumbai, it afforded him freedom to explore the island city for the first time. “And the camera became my excuse to wander."
Lalwani joined Better Photography in 2008, working his way up to assistant editor before quitting to go freelance last year. Over the years, Lalwani has built up a diverse body of work, but the focus of this chat is a series called Part Time Lover. The 50-odd photographs in the series—only a few of which are on his website—treat Mumbai like a living, breathing character. People appear only rarely, and, when they do, they are almost tangential, props that accentuate the mood he is trying to capture. An inveterate romantic, Lalwani talks of the city in the same terms you would use to describe an intimate relationship. “Part Time Lover is about exploring the contradictions of the city, not in terms of the contradiction between rich and poor, but the contradictory emotions I feel when looking at the city," he says. “Even when I am photographing Bombay, I am seeking to photograph the Bombay that is within me."
In many ways, Lalwani’s approach to capturing the city is the polar opposite of Uttamchandani’s. Heavily influenced by Swapan Parekh and Saul Leiter, he prioritizes visuality over context, information and story. This is reflected in the visual elements that dominate Part Time Lover—the night, dogs, crosses, flying hair, rain and sodium vapour lamps. And while Uttamchandani treats nostalgia like a dirty word, Lalwani likes to see the city “with (his) gaze turned backwards".
“If we are not aware of what we’ve lost, how will we correct ourselves?" he says, adding that he isn’t interested in the city’s old architecture as much as in capturing a certain nostalgic emotionality. “If each one of us starts valuing what we’ve lost, or questioning what we’ve lost, maybe there will be some difference."
One of my favourite photo-projects about Mumbai comes not from a born-and-raised Mumbaikar, but from an immigrant. Hailing from Shillong, Anurag Banerjee came to the city in 2013 to take up a job at the now defunct TimeOut magazine, and instantly fell in love. That romance heavily informs his Love In Bombay series, which documents young lovers navigating space and privacy challenges in this land-starved city. “(That) is the obvious theme, but the series is also my reaction to growing intolerance and moral policing," says Banerjee. One of the triggers for the series was the 2015 raids at Madh Island and Aksa, where the police arrested 13 couples from their hotel rooms for public indecency. “That’s why, apart from maybe two-three photos, you can’t really recognize the faces of the couples. I was looking at them as symbols, in a way saying that it doesn’t matter, you can’t kill love."
Love In Bombay is as much a project about the empathy that keeps the city going, as it is about romance. Banerjee talks about being inspired by a study claiming that the couples congregating on Marine Drive all sit equidistant from each other, instinctively creating impromptu private spaces for each couple.
But Banerjee’s romance with the Maximum City is tinged with an awareness that it is slowly falling apart at the seams. His initial idealism and adoration, reflected in the beautiful images of romantic couples, are now complemented by a sense of forlorn wariness. “The series has evolved, and now it’s also a lot about these smaller moments where it’s not always as hopeful," he says, mentioning a late addition to the set that depicts two mannequin heads. “That really is a kind of morose, dismal way of saying that it doesn’t matter, there is no hope."
Even though his love affair with the city is now tainted by disillusionment, Mumbai still remains a muse. “There’s just so much happening, you can find a story behind anything," he says. “This city is a great place to be a photographer, because it’s almost impossible to run out of subjects."